I. Rise of the Sciences

It’s unquestionably one of the most iconic moments of the Second World War: the Trinity test just before dawn on July 16, 1945. Out of the darkness a sudden flash of light, a brightness, then the famous billowing mushroom cloud lifting upward that announces our entry into the atomic age. And, immediately after, an image almost equally well-known: Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb, recalling years later what it was like for those who witnessed the first atomic blast. His furrowed face, Oppenheimer wiping away his tears, reciting Vishnu to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” At no moment in 20th century history, arguably, would science ever be more immediately present—or more important—to human affairs and human consciousness. Suddenly we all became aware of how life could suddenly come to an end. I remember, when growing up, being told what to do in the event of an atomic bomb attack, the familiar yellow-and-red signs for bomb shelters. As Heidegger once said, we were all living in the shadow of the bomb, which had irrevocably altered our sense of Dasein, of being-in-the-world. At the same time, we were all equally aware of how it was science that had gotten us there.

Science, then, was what determined human life, the conditions under which it would have to be lived, the sense of what was possible and not possible. But if that was the case then and in other (and how different) ways since, it might be worthwhile to ask how it was that science got there, how it achieved this sort of primacy in the human scene, and the kind of effect that primacy has had on literature. In recent years, in fact, the science-literature relationship has gotten increased attention. Understandably: the prestige of the sciences continues to be high, while literature is going down. Unfortunately, this has also affected the way that relationship gets talked about. Because of the prestige of the sciences, there’s pressure to show literature is “in the know,” that it’s au courant with the latest scientific developments in its time. As a result, the science-literature relationship becomes almost exclusively about literature trying to mirror the scientific thinking of its period. I want to suggest a somewhat different model for this relationship. Looked at more closely, I would argue the science-literature relationship goes through more of a cycle, with literature initially mirroring but later rejecting science and finally ending with a parody of it. And the reason, I suggest, is that science is closer to fashion than we think: what’s new at first looks pretty hip, pretty flashy, and everybody wants a piece of it. But with time, any way of thinking becomes more vulnerable to critique. Its weaknesses—even to outsiders—become more apparent. And that’s when we get first, attack or rejection, and then finally parody.

The World at War, episode 24: 25.50-26.36. Link will open video in a new tab.

For any attempt to explore the impact of science on modern life, however, the natural place to start has to be the turbulent years of the French Revolution and the First Empire, witness to the beginnings of modern medicine. And if we wanted to place it specifically, we might trace it to the Hôtel-Dieu, first and foremost of the research hospitals in Paris. Situated next to the cathedral of Notre Dame, it could accommodate 2,500 patients—a figure that, in times of emergency, could rise as high as 4,800. What you see in the photos isn’t the original Hôtel-Dieu, a large, rambling medieval structure much of which burned down in the eighteenth century. In fact, the present complex (of which I show the front entrance and central courtyard) goes back only to 1877. Situated on the original site, however, it at least gives us a sense of place. But we also need to know the circumstances. And here it’s important to point out how modern medicine emerged out of the turbulent circumstances of the Revolutionary era. Because it was the Revolution and the subsequent ascendancy of Napoleon that first made possible what we might call the beginnings of modern warfare, warfare on a scale not seen before. Specifically, with the citizen-armies of the Republic and Napoleon’s capacity to conscript or draft in huge numbers, we now get casualties on a different order of magnitude from anything Europe had previously witnessed, putting immense pressure on military hospitals to cope. Under this pressure, a new group of military surgeons would rise to prominence in the Imperial armies: Larrey, Desgenettes, Coste, Percy. Forced to deal with enormous casualties and minimal time for treatment, they developed new tactics for dressing wounds. The success of their methods, in turn, led to new discoveries and insights about the way the body functioned. Meanwhile, chaos in the hospital scene in Paris and elsewhere brought about by Revolutionary reform gave surgery its chance to wrest primacy away from traditional medicine: because it was more effective in treating disorders, surgery gained rapidly in respect while the reputation of medicine declined. As a result, many of the best and brightest young doctors, like Xavier Bichat, chose to train under surgeons like P.J. Dessault rather than under physicians. And because surgery was more clinical in practice than medicine, the new medicine took on a very clinical style: lots of observation in the hospital wards, lots of medical experiments. At the same time, French medicine also got a boost from the new secular attitude of the State, which permitted and even authorized autopsies of patients who had died in the hospitals.

The upshot of all this was a new interest in the physiological processes that sustained life. And the young medical researcher who benefitted as much as anybody from the change in medical practices was Xavier Bichat. His Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort (Physiological Researches on Life and Death) was epoch-making. Based on a huge number of experiments on living animals and on autopsies of the human dead, it brought a wealth of new knowledge about the processes by which life is sustained to visibility. But Bichat wasn’t just a researcher: he also had a strong interest in larger questions about the essence of vitality, and how that essence might be defined. His successor, François Magendie, was more purely experimental. And that meant even more data on the various physiological processes. Finally, we get Claude Bernard. Coming after Magendie, his researches on the pancreas, liver and nervous system and, above all, his development of the notion of a milieu intérieur or internal environment of the body, would bring French medicine to its apex around the middle of the nineteenth century.

With that, we now turn to the impact the spectacular rise of French medicine was to have on French literature—as well as on literature elsewhere. And here the first author that comes to mind is Balzac. It’s natural we should think of Balzac first: his brilliant young doctor Horace Bianchon, who figures in various places throughout the Comédie humaine, is clearly modeled on Bichat. But the work that I think displays better than anything else the impact of Bichat and the new medicine on Balzac is one of his less well-known Etudes philosophiques, with the somewhat mysterious title La Peau de chagrin—roughly, The Wild Ass’s Skin. It’s a wonderful story, a fable almost. A young man (Raphael de Valentin) comes to Paris in search of his fortune. And, like a lot of other young men who came to Paris during the nineteenth century, he discovers that making a fortune there isn’t so easy. But Paris (then & now) is a wonderful place if you’ve got money—so many pleasant ways to spend it. Well, one day Raphael en route to an appointment wanders into an antiquary’s shop, to kill time. While in the shop he notices one odd item: a small piece of shagreen leather with a curious inscription in some exotic language like Arabic or Sanskrit. He asks the shop owner about this item. “Oh, that” says the owner. “You can have that for free. But I should tell you there’s a condition attached to it.Whoever owns it will see every wish of his or hers come true. But with every fulfilled wish, the piece of leather will shrink a bit. And when it’s shrunk down to nothing, you’ll die.” A pretty scary proposition. But there are so many tempting things in Paris that finally Raphael decides he’ll take it anyway. Once he’s got it, he immediately wishes for all the things you’d expect him to wish for: a big bank account, a nice house (a real luxury in Paris, even in those days!), a whole load of other amenities. And with every wish, the leather or skin shrinks a bit. Interestingly, the one thing that doesn’t cost Raphael is his wish for a wife—since he and a young woman he knows were already in love, it seems there’s no resistance to be overcome. Unfortunately, as Raphael notices, even after all these big wishes he’s made, the skin continues to shrink. Worried, he takes the skin to a number of experts: a well-known botanist (who’s totally unable to identify it) and even a celebrated engineer (who tries unsuccessfully to stretch it out using a powerful hydraulic press). Beginning to panic, Raphael now decides he’d better get out of Paris—too many temptations there, too much stress. So he takes himself off to a health spa in the countryside—and promptly runs into trouble by getting into an argument with a visitor there, which necessitates his having to fight a duel. Of course he manages to kill the guy, but the wish to do that takes a huge amount of what’s left of his skin. Now desperate, Raphael decides he’d better go and live in some secluded farmhouse far away from everyone. But after some time there he finds he’s too bored—life doesn’t seem worth living anymore. So he finally resolves to go back to Paris. Once more in the city and slowly dying, he consults all the best doctors, who offer totally different diagnoses. Only the young Horace Bianchon, though, seems to know: he tells Raphael it’s not a matter of any particular illness but rather a malady of will (volonté)—which is to say: a loss of vital energy or the life force, which once used up can’t be recovered. So finally Raphael dies. In all this, Balzac appears to have been thinking of Bichat and his effort to separate vitality from purely chemical properties. Because Bichat refused to equate vitality with the purely chemical, Balzac could posit a psychophysical system of vital energy. What’s crucial here is that because life can’t be reduced to the purely chemical, there can be intangible, unseen forces associated with it — which is what allows for something like will in the sense of a vital energy. In this way, Bichat—and, following him, Balzac—can be said to have given the nod to vitalism, a belief in the uniqueness of the vital property.

There’s a distinct shift, however, when we come to Flaubert and his relation to the rising position of medicine in human affairs. Flaubert, as some of you probably know already, was the son of a surgeon, which meant he (like Proust later) was a lot closer personally to the medical establishment than Balzac. And—maybe for that very reason—I can’t help feeling that when writing about medicine Flaubert looks a bit as if he’s trying to settle a score. In any case, what we find in Madame Bovary is clearly an attack on the rising new science. Charles, husband of Emma Bovary, is stupefied by the medical programme and passes his medical exam only by memorizing the questions. Later, persuaded by Homais the pharmacist (probably with ulterior motive), Charles tries to cure Hippolyte Tautain of a club foot and makes a horrible mess of it. Poor Tautain has to have an amputation, the whole operation is a horrible failure. Dr. Canivet gets called in for advice and pointedly criticizes what he calls “Paris inventions” (a moniker for Paris medicine) as the source of the trouble. As he sees it, all those Paris surgeons have gotten too arrogant, believing they can fix anything by surgical intervention, believing they can even reverse the course of nature. At the end of the novel, finally, Flaubert gets even more explicit. After Emma’s poisoned herself, Dr. Larivière, “an eminent practitioner from the school of Bichat,” attends her. But his efforts to do anything for her—despite the vaunted status of Paris medicine—are unavailing, and she dies. Now in fact Paris typically preached expectant medicine or careful watching rather than drastic intervention. No matter—Flaubert doesn’t care. Clearly, what we have here is a very pointed rejection of the new science and its supposed powers.

George Eliot is more complicated—as we might expect. The passage I’m thinking of, from Middlemarch, offers what I’m inclined to call a kind of oblique attack or critique. In other words, it doesn’t go after Bichat or French medicine the way Flaubert does. Nonetheless, there’s a nuance, a whiff of suggestion that something isn’t quite right:

This great seer [Bichat] did not go beyond the consideration of the tissues as ultimate facts in the living organism, marking the limit of anatomical analysis; but it was open to another mind to say, have not these structures some common basis from which they have all started . . . . The work had not yet been done, but only prepared for those who knew how to use the preparation. What was the primitive tissue? In that way Lydgate put the question—not quite in the way required by the awaiting answer; but such missing of the right word befalls many seekers. (p. 146)

Years ago Robert Greenberg showed that at the time of writing Middlemarch George Eliot was getting brought up to speed by G.H. Lewes on the work of Claude Bernard (Lewes describes her as somewhat shaky on this). More recently, the topic has been revived by Lawrence Rothfield. What all these commentators seem to have missed, however, is the anomaly of George Eliot’s writing about Bichat when medical research has clearly moved on to Claude Bernard. Yes, you can say it’s a historical novel, so it has to stick to its time period. Nonetheless, I can’t help finding it strange that George Eliot should talk so conspicuously of Bichat’s failure to isolate the fundamental or basic vital constituent, which isn’t tissue but the cell. Note how Bichat’s failure gets passed on to poor Lydgate, who (as the narrator says) doesn’t ask the right question (looking for a more basic kind of tissue instead of something much smaller, like the cell) and so doesn’t get the right answer, hence doesn’t make the big discovery. What this kind of historical hindsight/perspective does, in effect, is to cast the shadow of failure over Lydgate’s aspirations—condemned by the future to fail in the past. And that can’t help but cast a shadow over the medical enterprise in a larger way—as if to say that whatever looks good at the moment will, at some future date, be superseded by further research and hence become obsolete. In other words, sic transit gloria mundi. So it isn’t as if George Eliot allows the narrative itself to criticize Lydgate or, by implication, French medicine. But if the narrative doesn’t put forward this critique, it’s only because it leaves that role to history.

Finally, with Henry James we get something like parody. In his Portrait of a Lady Daniel Touchett, at a fairly early point in the narrative, is dying. His son Ralph is, nonetheless, cautiously optimistic because he’s managed to secure the services of the great Sir Matthew Hope to attend his father. But it all comes to nothing: Daniel Touchett dies anyway. And even before that happens, Sir Matthew has already intimated to Madame Merle that he’s powerless to help Ralph’s father, that there’s nothing to do except wait for the inevitable end. We might see this as a parody of the expectant “watchful waiting” posture of French medicine after Bichat: what good is this expectant posture if the patient’s just going to die anyway? Perhaps because of his experience with his father, or perhaps for other reasons, Ralph seems to get progressively more cynical about the powers of modern medicine. Later in the novel, he thinks of going down to Sicily to improve his failing health. But his real objective is to see his cousin Isabel in Rome. His friend Lord Warburton offers to accompany him. Quite predictably, they get stuck in Rome. After a while the two friends somewhat shamelessly confess their motives (they’re both in love with Isabel). Warburton wonders whether Rome is good for his friend’s health, whether Ralph should get the doctor’s consent for staying there. To which Ralph answers: “The doctor’s consent will spoil it. I never have it when I can help it.” Finally, at the end of the novel, Ralph himself is dying. His mother gets Sir Matthew Hope to attend him, but Ralph by this time secretly believes the local doctor’s in fact better (so much for research medicine!). So he asks his mother to tell Sir Matthew he’s already dead, hoping he won’t be bothered by the great man’s attentions anymore (instead, his mother simply tells Sir Matthew her son dislikes him!). As before, however, it doesn’t matter anyway: Ralph dies, regardless of which doctors are attending him. So once more James can make his point about the powerlessness of modern medicine to effect any good for its patient.

We now pass to a different science and a different time, one with which you’re undoubtedly more familiar. I suspect a number of the faces in the photos here will be familiar as well. The first Solvay Conference (1911) brought together many of the best and the brightest of early 20th century physics: Henri Poincaré, Marie Curie, Konrad Lorentz, Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford, and a figure we’ve all come to know (standing second from right), then in his younger years. By the time of the 1927 Solvay Conference (said to be possibly the finest collection of scientific talent ever assembled—by the simple criterion of having more Nobel Prize winners than ever convoked anywhere else). By now the young physicist whom we saw at Solvay 1911 has moved center stage. And the person who would later become his biggest rival appears seated at the end of the second row, right. Finally, in a photo from (I believe) the 1950s we have Einstein and Bohr engaged in one of their endless arguments about the viability of quantum theory. I hope this brief pictorial history will suffice—I’ve dispensed with any fuller account, thinking that what we’re addressing now will at least be better known than the rise of modern medicine in 19th century France. So without further ado we now pass to the question of its impact on literature.

Here in fact our story goes back to an episode that happened in 1870, but retold from the vantage point of 1905. Specifically, we’re looking at the passage in The Education of Henry Adams in which Adams describes the experience of witnessing the death of his sister, Louisa Kuhn:

He found his sister, a woman of forty, as gay and brilliant in the terrors of lockjaw as she had been in the careless fun of 1859, lying in bed in consequence of a miserable cab-accident that had bruised her foot. Hour by hour the muscles grew rigid, while the mind remained bright, until after ten days of fiendish torture she died in convulsions.

. . . . Death took features altogether new to him, in these rich and sensuous surroundings. . . . The hot Italian summer brooded outside, over the market-place . . . and, in the singular color of the Tuscan atmosphere, the hills and vineyards of the Apennines seemed bursting with midsummer blood. . . . even the dying woman shared the sense of the Italian summer, the soft, velvet air, the humor, the courage, the sensual fulness . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . .

Impressions like these are not reasoned or catalogued in the mind; they are felt as part of violent emotion; and the mind that feels them is a different one from that which reasons; it is thought of a different power and a different person. The first serious consciousness of Nature’s gesture—her attitude towards life—took form then as a phantasm, a nightmare, an insanity of force. For the first time, the stage-scenery of the senses collapsed; the human mind felt itself stripped naked, vibrating in a void of shapeless energies, with resistless mass, colliding, crushing, wasting, and destroying what these same energies had created and labored from eternity to perfect. Society became fantastic, a vision of pantomime with a mechanical motion; and its so-called thought merged in the mere sense of life, and pleasure in the sense. The usual anodynes of social medicine became evident artifice. Stoicism was perhaps the best; religion was the most human; but the idea that any personal deity could find pleasure or profit in torturing a poor woman, by accident, with a fiendish cruelty known to man only in perverted and insane temperaments, could not be held for a moment. For pure blasphemy, it made pure atheism a comfort. God might be, as the Church said, a Substance, but He could not be a Person. (pp. 288-89)

Adams knew the late 19th century physics of Ernst Mach, and gleaned what he could from Karl Pearson’s Grammar of Science and other sources. What’s significant here is the way he chose to represent one of the most painful and intimate experiences of his life (and we know the death of his sister Louisa in the Education is really just a stand-in for an even more private and painful episode he simply couldn’t bear to write about—the suicide of his wife, Clover) by recourse to an analogy from modern physics. Simply by using it for something so private, so personal, it offers unequivocal testimony about the extent to which that physics had begun to make itself felt.

Perhaps the most fascinating instance of the science-literature relationship in 20th century literature, however, is one we still know almost nothing about. In George Painter’s old biography of Proust (I’m unable to find out anything more in the recent biographies by Jean-Yves Tadié and William Carter) we’re told that when Benjamin Crémieux pointed out to Proust some apparent anachronisms in Le Côté de Guermantes, he replied they were due to “the flattened form my characters take owing to their rotation in time” (p. 336). We know Proust made strenuous efforts to get an essay by the mathematician Camille Vettard on “Proust et Einstein” published in the NRF (where it finally appeared in August 1922), and that he set great store by it. But in the absence of any further information, we can only speculate about what specifically he had in mind. I want to call attention to just one instance that might yield some sense of the potential or possibility here. Late in the Recherche, Marcel believes at one moment that he’s seeing Saint-Loup exit from a hotel of somewhat doubtful reputation where he’s also seen Baron Charlus before:

Something nonetheless struck me that wasn’t his face which I didn’t see, nor his uniform hidden in a greatcoat, but the extraordinary disproportion between the number of different points through which his body passed and the small number of seconds during which this exit, which had the air of a sortie attempted by someone besieged, was executed. Of a sort that I thought of, if I didn’t recognize him explicitly—I don’t say by the figure, nor the svelteness, nor the allure, nor the quickness of Saint-Loup—but by the kind of ubiquity that was so special to him. The soldier capable of occupying in so little time so many different positions had disappeared without having seen me in a cross-street, and I stood wondering whether I should or shouldn’t go into this hotel whose modest appearance made me strongly doubt whether it was Saint-Loup who had exited from it. (IV: 389)

Here I only want to call attention to one point: the soldier “capable of occupying in so little time so many different positions”—this is, after all, exactly what movement in relativity theory is all about. And if we think about the movement of characters through spacetime as in a sense the real subject of the Recherche, it offers a glimpse of some fascinating possibilities for Proust’s use of relativity theory in different ways in his novel.

Finally, for an instance of how 20th century physics has become a subject of literary parody, we might look at Don DeLillo’s wonderfully funny novel White Noise. Here I just want to look briefly at an episode from part II (“The Airborne Toxic Event”) where Jack Gladney discovers he’s gotten exposed to a deadly form of toxic waste, Nyodene D. His question-and-answer session about it with a SIMUVAC expert at the emergency site shows him at his best as the artful dodger (pp. 138-41). It’s too long to quote entire, but maybe the best part comes at the very end, when Jack begins to realize the seriousness of his situation:

You are said to be dying and yet are separate from the dying, can ponder it at your leisure, literally see on the X-ray photograph or computer screen the horrible alien logic of it all. It is when death is rendered graphically, is televised so to speak, that you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself. A network of symbols has been introduced, an entire awesome technology wrested from the gods. It makes you feel like a stranger in your own dying.

I wanted my academic gown and dark glasses.
(p. 142)

We hardly know if he’s serious or not. What seemingly was tragedy has in this parody become positively baroque in its possibilities.